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Taliban-linked kidnappers of three U.N. election workers claimed today that a deal could be close for their release, even as the United States indicated it would not free jailed militants in return.

A businessman from Kosovo who has traveled to Kabul to seek the release of one of the captives also said the trio could be freed as early as this evening.

Afghan officials have reported progress but still not confirmed any negotiations with the Jaish-al Muslimeen group, or Army of Muslims, which claims to have staged the abductions 13 days ago.

The group says 26 prisoners, 11 of them in Guantanamo Bay, must be freed if it is to spare the lives of the three foreigners: Shqipe Hebibi of Kosovo, British-Irish Annetta Flanigan, and Philippine diplomat Angelito Nayan.

"We have been given signals that the prisoners whose release we demand will be freed," Jaish-al Muslimeen leader Akbar Agha told the Associated Press.

But visiting U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said, "Compromising with hostage-takers only encourages more."

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